Working hard or…

After Hunter’s first full day of school by himself, we went to get a special treat for being such a brave boy. I think I bought him M&Ms. After his second day, he told me he was a brave boy. Hint hint. So go ahead and call him spoiled or call me soft but how could I resist? His teachers gave him such glowing reports. Two weeks into it, he’s still doing great and I struggle to make broccoli and rice sound like a special treat. “We’ll add carrots! You love carrots! Carrots are VERY special.” Some days I win and others I find myself at our local “ice cream” place. (Because, after all, ice cream sounds way more special than frozen yogurt.)

In reality, the “Berry Bear” yogurt place is really a counter where you can get prepackaged cups of regular yogurt or soft-served frozen yogurt. And while there is a sign that clearly says, mango flavor, they only ever have original flavor frozen yogurt. Have you ever had plain frozen yogurt? There’s no mistaking it for ice cream. It’s not sweet and actually a bit sour. But still, it’s a vehicle for consuming sprinkles, so we don’t mind.

So, it’s about 2:45 pm on a beautiful day – low pollution, warm and breezy. Everyone is happy and excited as I announce we are getting a super special treat. I let Hunter take a couple of guesses and then wait for the squeal of delight as I announce it’s an ice cream day. We roll up to the counter and don’t immediately see anyone working. It’s not until I can lean over that I see the guy sitting in a plastic chair, fully upright, head cocked all the way back, mouth wide open, eyes shut. I laugh and say, “hello.” A little louder, “hello?” Still louder, “Ni hao!” I get that I am soft spoken so what for me, seems liking yelling, is probably not as loud as I think. So I continue, louder and louder. I am attracting the attention of other passers by and get a few smiles when they see the snoring worker but other than that, no one says a word. A woman comes over and looks at the display of prepackaged yogurt but just shrugs her shoulders and walks away.

Luckily, the convenience store across the way – the one where Shanghai’s business people get their tasty microwaved meats in gravy – installed a soft serve ice cream machine over the summer. So there were no sprinkles, but it actually tasted like sugar-full, artificially flavored, ice cream.

The next day, I passed this scene.


Out cold at approximately 10 am.

The next day, (no joke) this one.


Just relaxing. Not at lunch. Maybe on a break? But the guy sitting down in front holding the glove had just finished wrapping up the hose. Clearly that grueling task deserves a rest.

Not sure what this woman’s job is but she makes it look easy.


We once happened upon this in the park:

IMG_2254 IMG_2255Not sure if they were weeding or cutting grass or just generally grooming but they steadily inched the entire length of the lawn here, in a line, without any visible tools in hand. (The wheelbarrow, in the background, seemed to stay in the exact same position.) I can’t say it looked much different on our return, but at least they looked busy.

There are an abundance of people who work the grounds of our apartment complex. Other than the fact that they wear blue uniforms, they distinguish themselves by their universally slow movements. They shuffle around sweeping leaves off of grass, pushing a cart with trash bags, a sweeper and some rags, or they just walking around dragging a duster on the wall. They are never blatantly sleeping but they certainly don’t look assiduous.

I assume most of these are government jobs, and since they hold 20% of the world’s population, it’s in their best interest to employ as many as they can. Because there are so many, perhaps they know they don’t have to work as hard? The construction on the building across the street never stops. Not at 3 am, not on the weekend, not on holidays. But is this just because they work half as quickly as they could?

There is a scene in the movie, Love Actually, where Alan Rickman is buying a necklace for his secretary while is wife is shopping in another department of the same store. The clerk meticulously wraps the present with care and a visibly annoyed Rickman tries to get him to just hurry up. The clerk ignores him and continues to take his time with ribbons and tissue paper and wrapping insisting he takes his time to make it perfect. That’s kind of how every transaction here goes. We went to a cafe to buy a waffle with fruit. It took about a half hour for it to come. When they finally started to make it, we watched as they unnecessarily cut the edges off the waffle with scissors, used about 4 knives to slowly carve four pieces of fruit for the top, and then ever so slowly dollop carefully placed whipped cream and finished with a slow drizzle of honey on the outer edges. But oops, the grape was a little out of place. Redo. And some honey got on the plate. Hold on while I find a rag to wipe it. And wait, forgot the mint garnish. Just another second. With two hungry and restless toddlers, it was painful to watch.

But maybe this says more about government and service jobs in any country? I suppose if I looked hard enough in the US (or any country), I could find similar pictures. Or maybe it’s the naive (misinformed?) impression I’ve had about the Chinese: the media fueled “rising economic giant”; or the foreboding “Chinese students are crushing US students”; or the outdated “industrious communists” stereotype. But they do not work at a pace, or with the efficiency, that suggests this is the next world’s superpower.

You heard it here first. From an always-in-a-hurry, know-it-all, egocentric American -whose very own government appears to be in shambles and everyday brings a new embarrassing tale of how inefficient and ineffective they really are – I know what it takes to be a leading superpower of the world.

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